“There’s good reason to call your native language your mother tongue!”
Summer 2022 Newsletter on the Karachay project

Karachay Bible translator Lyudmila came to the IBT Moscow office from the village of Kyzyl-Pokun in the Karachay-Cherkessia region of the North Caucasus in order to audio record her first translated Bible portion – the book of Jonah. Her younger daughter Farida, who lives in Moscow, read the translation aloud while Lyudmila listened and made suggestions for improving the reading. At the end of their two day working session, I asked the translator to share how she joined the Bible translation project.

 “I grew up in the Soviet era, when our Muslim people didn’t particularly flaunt their commitment to traditional religion. Nevertheless, Muslim rituals were present in my childhood in one way or another, and two things always struck me about them: the need to repeat prayers in Arabic without understanding their meaning, and the tradition of standing up respectfully when pronouncing the name of the Prophet Muhammad, even though there was no similar custom to do the same when pronouncing the name of Allah Himself. One more thing I was curious about as a child: what is this mysterious word Amen that is used at the end of Muslim rituals (as well as at the end of Christian prayers)? 

Years passed, and this word Amen played a certain role in my conversion to Christ. My older daughter Tamara became seriously ill. In her early childhood she had been a very talented child, but then her development suddenly stopped. Neither doctors nor folk healers were able to help her. At the mosque, they gave me a prayer in Arabic that for some reason mentioned the Prophet Jonah. I was told to repeat it 100 times, and then my daughter would be healed. But each time I tried reciting that prayer, I would invariably fall asleep after 70 repetitions. As the same thing was being repeated over and over again, I realized that God did not want me to say it. It was at that time of my inner crisis that a new employee came to my workplace, saw my daughter and offered to pray for her. At the end of her prayer, the woman said “Amen,” so I asked her the question that had puzzled me since childhood and finally got the answer: Amen means “So be it, verily so.” That was the point at which my new life as a Christian started. 

Subsequently I learned to accept what the Lord sends and to listen to God. My older daughter didn’t ever fully recover from her ailment, but she started bringing me the Bible every morning and demanding that I would read God’s Word to her. It’s amazing that the first book I translated into my language is Jonah – as if through the Muslim prayer that mentioned this prophet's name, the Lord was foretelling me the things to come in my life. 

God was preparing me gradually for the task of Bible translation. One day in my church I was given a translation of a Scripture portion and was told that it was in Karachay. But in the very first line that I read, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was called “pregnant.” The truth is that in Karachay, unlike in the closely related Balkar language, you simply can't say it like this. In Karachay, one must use a euphemism to refer to a pregnant woman. Otherwise it is rude. Karachay and Balkar are in many ways mutually intelligible languages but, as it often happens with closely related languages, some peculiarities of style, grammar and vocabulary seem unacceptable and even ridiculous, to speakers of the other language.

After this I found myself at a conference in Moscow devoted to Caucasian languages, and among the participants there were many Bible translators from the Caucasus. So many languages of my region were represented, but no one was translating into Karachay. I felt deep pain in my heart that not a single part of the Bible was being translated into my mother tongue. But it was at that particular conference that I got acquainted with the IBT project co-ordinator and learned from her that we could start a new Karachay project if I agree to participate in it.

I started drafting my first book with great enthusiasm. I would love to learn Greek in the future so that I could translate directly from the original Gospel texts. After I finished my first translation, I met with the Balkar translator who agreed to help me as an exegetical advisor. It turned out that our work could be mutually enriching for both projects, Balkar and Karachay. And my first work with the translation consultant from the United Bible Societies became a source of great inspiration for me. The consultant is able to shed valuable light on each word in the Bible in a completely new way, to draw my attention to the places in the Bible text which had at first seemed quite ordinary, but under his guidance revealed to me their importance.”

After Lyudmila's story, I turned to her daughter Farida, the reader of Jonah, and asked her if she found any differences between the texts of Jonah in Russian and her mother tongue. Here's what she answered: “I don't quite know how to explain it to you, but I’ve realized that there’s good reason to call your native language your mother tongue. When you hear a text in your own language, you perceive it differently, as something very close, native, though in everyday life we feel okay about speaking Russian. But a book in your native language gives you a completely different feeling. When you read it, it’s as if it belongs to you. I think it would be very useful for all Karachays to get acquainted with these Bible stories in our native language. If they don’t hear them in their native tongue, they won't believe them. But if they hear them in Karachay, they will start thinking that all this happened somewhere nearby and that there are people who believe this, and then maybe it’s worth listening to and trying to figure it out for themselves. The vast majority of my friends are not Christians. If I had materials in my own language, such as a book, a cartoon, or an app, I would readily share them with my friends.” 

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